Click above to watch the main title sequence from Barbary Coast as well as clips from the second episode, “Crazy Cats.”
(Editor’s note: This is my humble contribution to the weeklong William Shatner Blogathon, organized by Stacia Jones of She Blogged by Night.)
I’ve mentioned before that my fondness for San Francisco can be traced principally to four influences during my teenage years: (1) Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; (2) Herbert Asbury’s wonderful book about the city’s criminal past, The Barbary Coast; and (3) a pair of American television series, McMillan & Wife and The Streets of San Francisco. Actually, though, there’s another reason, too, for my association with California’s most colorful burg: the short-lived series Barbary Coast.
That hour-long show, which debuted on ABC-TV in September 1975 and disappeared from the prime-time schedule just a dozen episodes later, in early January 1976, was set in 1870s San Francisco. It starred Star Trek alumnus William Shatner as Jeff Cable, the governor of California’s personal undercover investigator, and Doug McClure (formerly of Checkmate and The Virginian) as Cash Conover, the proprietor of a saloon and casino in the then rough-and-tumble town’s most notorious quarter, the Barbary Coast, which butted up against the Italian district of North Beach. The back-story, if I recall correctly, was that the well-connected Cable had saved gambler Conover’s bacon, after the latter killed (in a New Orleans duel) the son of a powerful nabob, and then “persuaded” Conover to help him clean up the Coast--“the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind,” as B.E. Lloyd opined in his 1876 book, Lights and Shades in San Francisco. Agent Cable was a master of disguise, who lived in a secret deluxe apartment on the casino’s second floor, entered through a hinged fireplace in Conover’s office.
At least initially, Barbary Coast seemed to have much weighing in its favor. Shatner and McClure were both fan favorites. The series’ creator was Douglas Heyes, whose screenwriting credits included episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, The Bold Ones, McCloud, and City of Angels. The program was the closest thing to a TV Western since Gunsmoke cantered off into the sunset in the spring of 1975. And the setting held considerable promise for quirky criminal adventures. As I wrote of the real Barbary Coast in my book San Francisco: Yesterday and Today,
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, this unabashedly wicked quarter--centered on Pacific Avenue (or “Terrific Street,” as habitués called it), and chock-a-block with groggeries and brothels--was an affront to everything clean-living San Franciscans wanted for their city.But problems were quick to crop up. In the pilot film, directed by Bill Bixby of The Magician fame and shown originally in May 1975, Dennis Cole had starred as Conover, owner of the Golden Gate Casino. But critics deemed Cole too restrained and colorless in that role, so ABC dumped him in favor of the more boyish McClure. Personally, I preferred Cole’s performance as the suspicious and manifestly superstitious Cash, because he emanated a depth and restrained deviousness that McClure could never capture--if he even tried. With the substitution of McClure as Shatner’s partner in crime-solving, ABC also announced plans to retitle the show Cash and Cable; fortunately, that decision never went farther than the announcement. One choice that did go ahead, though, was the unfortunate one to schedule Barbary Coast in the same time slot--8-9 p.m. on Mondays--that had been home to the axed Gunsmoke. The real Barbary Coast had been a despicable, dank, and downright desperate place. Capturing and capitalizing on that reputation in a series slated for the “family hour” was well nigh impossible.
A survey made in 1870 discovered that the Coast’s underworld population numbered 20,000--3,000 of whom made their living from prostitution. The rest spent their days separating fools from their money in gambling joints, “shanghaiing” drugged sailors and other ne’er-do-wells onto ships bound for Asia or South America, running ribald theaters, operating protection rackets, and managing a remarkable redundancy of drinking establishments. In 1875, the city of San Francisco issued some 2,000 liquor licenses, 304 of which went to places along the Barbary Coast. A single block of Pacific Avenue boasted 10 saloons. With such competition, watering holes had to be creative if they were to attract customers. One chained a live grizzly bear beside its entrance. Others, explained Scribner’s Monthly magazine in 1875, “have organs that invite patrons to dally. ... And some, in addition to a band, keep a female staff capable of waking thirst in a stone.” At one dive, a rank grotesque known as Dirty Tom McAlear would consume any noxious liquid or foul food you gave him, in exchange for the few pennies at the bottom of your pocket. McAlear was finally arrested for “making a beast of himself.”
Some of the criminal cases these reluctant “pardners” tackled might have been intriguingly fleshed out, had the show’s writers (a few of whom had apparently been borrowed from the stable that made Mission: Impossible a hit) been allowed to incorporate more mature subject matter into their scripts. As the TV Acres Web site recalls, episodes focused on such subjects as “a crooked banker using counterfeit cash to inflate his account,” “recovering a hijacked shipment of rifles,” “retrieving a valuable pair of jade cats for the Chinese,” and “thwarting the assassination plot of a visiting Irish leader.” Heyes’ pilot offered a glimpse of what might have been, with its story line about vigilantes (who had actually terrorized historical San Francisco) wanting to take law enforcement into their own violent hands. But of course such dark material would have been unacceptable on a weekly basis when children were watching. Heaven knows, they might have been traumatized for the rest of their lives!
Television reviewers compared Barbary Coast with another 19th-century Western spy-crime series, The Wild Wild West, and found the former wanting. Shatner’s Cable wasn’t nearly as appealing as Ross Martin’s suave master of disguise and gadget maker, Artemus Gordon, and he could be downright annoying and campy. And McClure’s Conover--unconvincingly a smash with the female sex--lacked anything approaching the magnetism of Robert Conrad’s secret agent, James West. TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory was particularly unimpressed with the show. In his column of October 25, 1975, he wrote:
Barbary Coast is half adventure, half spoof and all complicated. The plots are so involved that it takes someone with nothing else on his mind to understand them. If there’s anything that makes a spoof go poof, it’s not knowing what’s going on--before they start making fun of it. There’s also another problem. Your heroes, William Shatner and Doug McClure, are evidently directed to be as cute as bugs, and, like all actors so directed since the prime of recorded time, sooner of later they begin to--well, bug you.From the reviewers’ point of view, Barbary Coast probably outstayed its welcome. Even Shatner--who went on from this failure to do the Star Trek movies and then play a veteran police sergeant in T.J. Hooker (1982-1986)--has been dismissive of the show’s strengths in the 35 years since it was cancelled. However, I think Barbary Coast (which, unfortunately, is still not available in DVD format) had potential, and could have been a crowd pleaser--if only it had landed a later evening time spot and been allowed to actually depict the dangers and devilishness that the genuine Barbary Coast offered to both its habitués and the well-fixed young slummers who thrilled at the opportunity to wander its tawdry thoroughfares.
I can only imagine what director Martin Scorsese, who is in the process of developing the fall 2010 HBO-TV series Boardwalk Empire, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey, could do with a historical detective drama backdropped by a San Francisco locale that made Atlantic City look like a children’s playground. Would he at least sign the now 79-year-old William Shatner to do a cameo bit?
READ MORE: “A Cruise on the Barbary Coast,” by Albert S. Evans (The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco).